A small railway station with shanties on either side. A main street running the length of the town, selling everything from household provisions to construction materials. A semi-finished temple, a few lodges and bars, and as the town ends, a series of truck-repair shops.

The tiny town of Kantabanji in western Odisha’s Bolangir district looks unremarkable in the summer.

But come November and it whirrs to life as people arrive from the nearby countryside after harvesting the year’s sole rainfed crop. With no work in the villages for the next few months, they come to the town with their meagre belongings to catch trains to Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, where they would spend the next five or six months working in brick-kilns.

During those weeks in November, the town becomes the largest migrant labour market in western Odisha. Its guesthouses and hotels fill up as brick kiln owners called “seths” come to recruit workers, with the help of local labour contractors called “sardars”. Two trains heading to Visakhapatnam – the Korba-VSKP Link Express and  the Durg-VSKP Passenger – extend their halts to make sure all the workers enter (or are loaded into) the unreserved compartments.

In November, the tiny Kantabanji station would be packed with thousands of workers.

A state built on migration

It’s not clear how many people flow through Kantabanji towards the kilns every year. M Muthukumar, the collector of Bolangir district, pegs their numbers at anywhere between 100,000-125,000. Others like Pramodini Pradhan, a human rights activist, say the number is far higher at around 200,000.

Migration is one of the leitmotifs in modern Odisha. Young men leave the state’s coastal districts like Ganjam to work in textile mills, shipyards and the diamond-polishing shops of Gujarat and Mumbai. Young girls from Sundargarh work as domestic labour in Delhi and elsewhere. People in western Odisha, especially the districts of Kalahandi, Koraput and Bolangir, travel to neighbouring Chhattisgarh to work in its farms, or migrate to the brick kilns in the South (sometimes to the ones in the North as well). Workers from Odisha go to Goa’s fishing villages as much as Kerala’s construction sites, said Pradhan.

This statewide centrality of migration raises the question: Why does this verdant state with its abundant rainfall and high economic growth figures experience so much rural migration?

The verdant fields of Bolangir in western Odisha.

The view from the villages

During the monsoons, in the haze of rain, Bolangir looks every bit of an agrarian arcadia. Steel grey clouds look down at forest-covered hills. Men and women transplant paddy in verdant green fields brimming with water.

Until half a century ago, Bolangir’s fields, forests and rivers could take care of most people through the year. Not any more. Things began to change in 1965, said Rajib Sagaria, a journalist in the town of Bongomunda. That year, a severe drought gripped this area.

In response, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi directed that Bolangir’s forests be used to provide relief. Food-for-timber programmes were started. As hundreds of timber depots came up, forests shrank, and the traditional livelihood calendar, built around farming during the rains and forest produce the rest of the year, came unstuck. Earlier, only Dalits used to migrate seasonally, said a report prepared by human rights activists last year. But after 1965, it said, “people from other castes and people having land, mainly small and marginal farmers, also began migrating”.

Since then, the land’s ability to support everyone has eroded further, partly because, as families grew, more people came to depend on the same tract of land. Simultaneously, agriculture became more uncertain. As the use of chemical fertilisers rose, soil quality and the profitability of farming came down, villagers said. 

What has added to the uncertainty is the increasingly erratic pattern of rainfall. Until 15-20 years ago, the monsoon would come to Odisha by June 10, said environmentalist Biswajit Mohanty. “It would rain heavily almost every day till the end of September, and then gradually taper off by November.” But now, the state sees very little rain in June. By the time it rains heavily in September, the crops have often wilted. The state is also seeing unnatural spells of dry weather. “As many as 10-15 days can go by without any rain as opposed to two-three days earlier,” he said.

Between these trends – the withering of forest-based livelihoods, increasingly unpredictable rains, swelling families – the people of Bolangir have entered a phase where their traditional livelihoods cannot support them through the year.

Vasudev Nag, a farmer in his late 40s in Haldipatrapalli village near Kantabanji, said: “People whose fields give them enough produce for ten months stay on in the village after the harvest. They survive the rest of the year working in the local towns or by putting up with some difficulty.” But most people in his village, he said, are small and marginal farmers or landless labourers. The harvest cannot take care of them all year. Needing sustenance, they migrate after the harvest is over. Another subset of village population that migrates is made up of people who borrowed money for planting crops or for meeting wedding and health expenses. The interest rates are so high that they have no other way to repay.

Vasudev Nag: “My family’s 12 acres used to support 3 families when my father and his brothers were farming. In our generation, these 12 acres have to support 9 families.”

The strange persistence of kiln-work

In 2010, Thiru Gour Rana, a farmer from Haldipatrapalli, took two staggeringly expensive loans for his daughter’s marriage – Rs 10,000 from the village moneylender and Rs 10,000 from the head of the Jadav Samaj, a local community organisation. Both loans came at an incredible 10% monthly interest.

Desperate to settle his loan, he signed up with a contractor who supplied workers to brick kilns. Like other workers heading to the kilns, he was paid a large upfront advance – about Rs 30,000. He was told that for every 10,000 bricks that his family made, they would get Rs 500 which would be adjusted against that advance. The kiln owner also agreed to pay a food allowance to the family.

He repaid his loans with the advance and then, along with his wife and 15-year-old son, moved to a brick kiln in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvallur district.

Weeks passed when Rana and his family could only make 7,000-8,000 bricks. The food allowance was meagre – Rs 50 for three daily meals for three people. “We would buy rice at Rs 7 a kilo and eat it with tomatoes and potatoes,” said Rana.

His ordeal ended fortuitously. In April 2011, about five months after Rana started work, Tiruvallur’s subdivisional magistrate raided the kiln, freeing him and other bonded labourers.

To get his daughter married, Thiru Gour Rana had to borrow Rs 20,000 at an astounding 120% interest. Needing to repay quickly, he went to the kilns. 

For all the hardship he faced, Rana was one of the lucky ones. As several researchers, writers and lawyers have documented, workers have suffered abuse, long working hours, severe beatings and rape at India’s brick kilns. The most recent reminder of the casual brutality hardwired into this trade came last January when labour contractors chopped off the hands of two workers.

Even without the brutality, kilnwork is loaded against the workers. The high advances, while serving to reduce the risk of payment default by the kiln-owners, also lock in the workers. They cannot leave till they make their quota of bricks. This is where the industry gets its reputation for bonded labour.

But the bad reputation does not matter as long as the business is profitable. In his book on bonded labour, Harvard academic Siddharth Kara estimates that the margins for kiln-owners from debt bondage are as high as 50%.

The logic of kiln-work

Despite the known risks, every year after the harvest, workers in western Odisha fill up trains and head to the kilns. The reasons why people keep migrating to the kilns go beyond the marginalisation of traditional livelihoods. A second fait accompli – where people are left with no alternative – is also at work here.

Take access to credit. Umi Daniel, one of the leading activists working on migration in Odisha, pointed out that contrary to the claims of the kiln-owners, most workers came back with hardly any savings. “When they come back, they need money almost immediately to repair their houses and to take care of those unwell,” he said. But around June and July, there isn’t enough farmwork and so they end up borrowing.

As Rana’s experience shows, formal finance is hard to come by. He had to borrow from moneylenders at 120% annual interest. In contrast, the sardars lend at 0% interest. The loan doubles up as the kilns’ advance. While talking to Haroon Khan, one of the veteran sardars in Kantabanji, this reporter saw the process first-hand: A villager came and asked for Rs 5,000. His mother had passed away and he needed money for the last rites.

Another factor is the performance of the government job programme under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Guarantee Act. In three of the poorest districts of western Odisha, a household can get 150 days of work under MGNREGA. Given that MGNREGA works are usually offered after the monsoon months, the programme overlaps almost perfectly with the months when households migrate to work in the kilns. A household working all 150 days would make about Rs 20,000 over five months.

Look at the government’s statistics for Bolangir district and you will conclude that MGNREGA is working immaculately: 57,916 people demanded work under the programme in 2015-’16. Of them, 57,154 got work.

Implementation of the programme improves even further when you check what the website says about its performance at individual panchayats. Take Kuibahal. According to the website, 42 people asked for work. And all of them got it as well.

Little of this matches with what the villagers say. “We do not get NREGA work,” said a young man who did not want to disclose his name. “Not this year, not the previous year. But we got 30-45 days in the year before that.” Several others echoed what he said.

The real story of MNREGA

When asked about this, a senior official who was with the rural development ministry at New Delhi until very recently said the villagers were right. The Odisha government, he said, is misrepresenting data. In MGNREGA, workers have to ask for work which has to be approved by the local administration. Odisha, said the official, is “passing off works approved as the total demand for work”.

A better way to assess MGNREGA implementation in the state, he said, was to look at the number of work days provided against the demand for MGNREGA as estimated by the state government and the central ministry.  Against a probable district-wide demand of 90,508 days of work by August, the state government has provided just 15,495 days.

Take Kuibahal village. According to the rural development ministry, the panchayat had a latent demand of 5,953 days of work by August. But only 90 days were delivered. The costs of this apathy are high. People in the village are travelling as far as erstwhile Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu seeking work at the brick-kilns. If they had NREGA work, they lamented, they would not need to travel.

Why don’t the people of Kuibahal get NREGA work?

Until recently, it was because the sarpanch, Kunjam Mahanand, also doubled up as a sardar. While he wasn’t home the day I travelled to the village, Abdul Kader Khan, one of the biggest sardars in the area, confirmed that Mahanand supplies labour to the kilns.

This creates an obvious conflict of interest, according to Nabaghan Ojha, a policy expert who has been working on a programme to better implement MNREGA in western Odisha. The programme is funded by the British government’s overseas aid body called the Department for International Development.  “If the sarpanch is a dalal, why will he open NREGA work?” Ojha said.

New economic engine

Travel through Kantabanji and you come to realise just how much the local economy has come to depend on the business of migration. As surrounding forests have dwindled, so has the business of forest produce, one of the town’s mainstays. In its place, supplying labour has emerged as a new economic engine.

According to Khan, migration to the kilns pumps as much as Rs 1,000 crore into the local economy every year. A part of that goes as advances to the workers. But another chunk goes to the sardars. Not only do they get a commission for every worker they sign up, they also make Rs 20 as commission for every 1,000 bricks the workers make. A kiln makes about 1 crore bricks in a season. This means Khan makes Rs 2 lakh per kiln. “I supply labour to five kilns, so I make Rs 10 lakh each year,” he said.

Haroon Khan is one of the most influential sardars in Bolangir.

This has created an outcome where the number of sardars continues to rise. The town had no more than six or seven sardars until ten years ago, said Khan. It now has about 100-150 sardars. The town’s ruling elite is involved in the trade. Khan is a good example: his brother, Ayub Khan, is the local MLA from the Biju Janata Dal.

Contrast this set of local incentives with the state government’s attempts to crack down on kiln-work and you will find the latter ineffectual. Attempts to license migrant workers, say sardars and activists, have only resulted in the trade going underground. There are about 25,000 registered migrant workers in Bolangir, said Muthukumar, the district collector. This is a small fraction of the actual number of people migrating from the district.
MGNREGA, which could have stemmed migration, has not been implemented. In 2014, the Modi government’s statements about scrapping MGNREGA further weakened the programme.

An ineffectual state is another structural reason for the persistence of migration. Given Odisha’s inability to improve financial access for farmers, respond to shifting rainfall patterns and better implement MGNREGA, rescue efforts like the one which plucked Rana from the kilns are little more than band-aids.

With none of the root causes addressed, it might not be long before he and his family are compelled to migrate again.